Fantasy on TV: How 'Game of Thrones' Succeeds Where 'True Blood' Fails

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The two HBO shows illustrate the perils and opportunities of adapting books for the screen

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HBO


After a summer when HBO garnered critical acclaim and new audiences with its epic fantasy series Game of Thrones, it's been fascinating to watch True Blood, the show that introduced HBO to the genre, go dramatically off the rails in its fourth season. Both shows face the challenges of mustering very large casts in the service of complex storylines that are not always obviously related to each other, along with detailed magical mythologies and histories. But while Game of Thrones hewed closely to the original plotlines and pacing in George R.R. Martin's book, Alan Ball and his writing staff have diverged wildly from Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire mysteries as they've moved deeper into True Blood. Taken together, the two shows represent the perils and opportunities of adapting an existing fantasy franchise.

Harris's Southern Vampire books may be fairly conventional paranormal romances, lacking some of the higher-level philosophical and mythological resonances Alan Ball's added to the franchise. But they're an impressive example of world-building and pacing. Harris started out with vampires and shape-shifters, giving readers a grounded sense of those concepts and mythologies before adding werewolf hierarchies in the third book, witches in the fourth, and faeries in the eighth. That pacing gave readers time to get a full sense of how different kinds of magic work before introducing new part of the world and explaining how different concepts interacted.

By contrast, the show's moved faster, introducing both witches and the idea that Sookie has faerie powers this season. As a result, both concepts and characters have suffered. When Sookie miraculously cured Eric of his witchcraft-induced amnesia with faerie abilities she hasn't bothered to explore and that haven't been mentioned since the first episode of the season, it felt lazy, not exciting—a plot device swooping in when it was convenient rather than after it had been earned.

Adding to the confusion is the way HBO's adaptation has added characters to the franchise that haven't done much to advance the show's themes. In the books, Sookie's boss Sam was a lone wolf—or collie, depending on what he's shapeshifting into on any given day—with family in another state. In the show, he's been given a shifting but shiftless brother, Tommy, who mostly serves to illustrate, repeatedly and at great length, that Sam is foolish to let him stay in Bon Temps because Tommy constantly betrays him. When Tommy was killed off in Sunday's episode, it was a relief, both in that it cleared out an over-crowded cast, and that it ended a pattern of behavior that had no clear move towards growth or resolution.

Similarly, when it's elevated characters like Tara Thornton, a friend of Sookie's who's plays a minor role in the novels and a more significant one in the show, it's added complications, but not thoughtful complexity. Turning the character African-American might have been a gesture towards progressivism if HBO had preserved Tara as the intelligent, independent businesswoman she is in the novels. Instead, Tara's also become a perpetual victim who never seems to learn from her experiences. She may have more screen time, but she's less of a person.

By contrast, Game of Thrones has stayed very closely to the plot and characterization in George R.R. Martin's first novel of the same title in its first season. That isn't to say that strict fidelity will produce reliable results, or that Game of Thrones makes no alterations to Martin's work.

One of the most important structural elements of Martin's novels is the addition of points of view that clarify events and to provide different perspectives on events we've already visited once in previous books. To move that diversification of perspectives forward more quickly, Game of Thrones' adapters replaced some generic scenes of courtly life with conversations between characters that set up rivalries at court, like those between the realm's treasurer and its spymaster. Others give characters like Jamie Lannister, the sworn guard of a previous king who killed him out of fear his madded ruler would destroy the realm, the opportunity to tell parts of their story seasons before they're given an opportunity to speak for themselves in the novels. These additional scenes don't change the pace of events—just our understanding of them.

Just like with True Blood, Game of Thrones expands the roles of some small characters, but it does so with a sense of their function in the narrative and in concert with the core values of Martin's novels. Chief among these expanded characters are two prostitutes, Shae and Ros. In the novels, Shae becomes the lover of a nobleman, but her background and motivations remain fairly opaque. In the shows, on the other hand, she's given a backstory and a sense of agency. Ros, who is barely mentioned in the book except by name, in the show is given a web of connections to other characters and a role as an informant for a scheming nobleman.

It's entirely possible that as future seasons of Game of Thrones tackle Martin's progressively longer and more complicated novels, the show will have to dramatically streamline narratives and make corresponding revisions in plots to tie events together in a plausible way. But thus far, the Game of Thrones showrunners have demonstrated something that the people behind True Blood haven't: a sense of what makes a franchise compelling beyond its basic concepts.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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